“Ain’t two peas in a pod or two beans either. There ain’t but one Pinto Bennett. Thank God. So you best pour your ears full of his knowledge quick as you can. It’ll go straight to your heart.”
–Billy Joe Shaver
Maybe you’ve heard of him, and maybe you haven’t. But his legacy and influence is intertwined with a lot of the music you most certainly have enjoyed over the years. And now a legacy that started in Idaho and stretched all across the country and world has come to a close. He passed suddenly on Tuesday evening, June 29th at around 10 p.m. Bennett had been dealing with heart problems and other health issues for years.
In what regard does the Idaho-born, and Texas-based band Reckless Kelly hold Pinto Bennett? So much so that they recorded an entire album of his songs in the form of 2010’s Somewhere in Time, and he appears on the song “Thelma.” He was their Billy Joe Shaver, so to speak. Bennett was a running buddy of Braun family patriarch Muzzie Bruan, and became a big influence on all the boys who now comprise the principle members of Reckless Kelly and Micky and the Motorcars.
But that’s only scratching the surface. Born in May of 1948 in Mountain Home, Idaho, and raised on a ranch where he was regularly exposed to the music of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, Pinto worked as a rancher early in life, and also joined the Navy before falling into the music business, and sending crowds buzzing about this wild man from Idaho that would set crowds on fire.
His music career started in a band called Bobby Jones and the Outlaws, but it was his second band called Tarwater in the 70’s that led Pinto into what would be one of his signature contributions, “Hard Country Music.” Taking a rockin’, rollicking attitude to the music and performance just as much indicative of rock and roll, these weren’t well-mannered country music performances, but something akin to honky tonk punk rock, buoyed by what contemporaries still regarded as quality songs penned by Pinto.
This unique attitude and approach to country music led to Pinto Bennett’s most famous outfit, the Famous Motel Cowboys. Touring all across the world, and even to the UK and Europe, Pinto and the Famous Motel Cowboys shared stages with the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. And even though Nashville and major labels really wanted nothing to do with them, Pinto found a following nonetheless, mostly from the support of his fellow musicians like Lyle Lovett, and a strong following in Europe where his authenticity shined through.
“Pinto Bennett, The Cowboy Kerouac, a psychedelic Faron Young. That’s all I could think about when serving my apprenticeship with the Famous Motel Cowboys,” songwriter and performer Chris Wall recalls. “There was a ferocity in his singing that belied the gentle soul under the red beard. In the Rockies they were legend. When we hit California I think they saw us as a Mongol Horde. The club owners weren’t quite ready for us out there but the crowds loved the raw pounding sound. Fierce drumming, pounding bass and soaring guitars.”
As time went on, Pinto Bennett’s Christian faith came more and more to the forefront, and getting a little too old for the more raucous shows, he formed Trio Pinto to perform with—hailing back to the acoustic roots of the music. As Pinto’s health continued to catch up with him, he stuck around Idaho more and more, where he became both a local hero, and a cult hero nationally as bands like Reckless Kelly helped spread the word of his music and legacy to a new generation of listeners.
Leaving a large legacy of albums, songs, and live performances behind, Pinto Bennett released his final album The Last Saturday Night in 2019.
“To all our family, friends and fans, last night Pinto passed away suddenly at home,” a message from his family reads, posted late morning on June 30th. “He was a great man and will be missed by many. No words can express the sorrow we feel, we appreciate all the love you are sending at this very difficult time.”
Pinto Bennett is survived by three daughters, Danielle, Heather and Michelle, and wife Barbara.